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Fighting for families with mental illness

Times-Mirror Staff Photo/Crystal Owens Pete Earley, former Washington Post reporter and author of the book “Crazy,” address a crowd at the March 8 Loudoun Crime Commission meeting at Belmont Ridge Country Club.  Earley praised Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman for implementing crisis intervention training among his deputies.
In the nation today, there's an average wait time of 18 years for mentally ill patients to receive assisted living housing.

In Virginia alone, the Office of the Inspector General reported that 70 people who met the state's dangerous criteria, who needed help, were turned away in the Hampton Roads area, a practice called "streeting," because there were no available beds, former Washington Post reporter and author Pete Earley told a group at the March 8 Loudoun Crime Commission Meeting.

"That's why I call my book "Crazy." It's not about people like my son, it's about the system," he said.

A father's fight

Pete Earley's son Kevin Earley suffers from bipolar disorder, a disease he struggled with for years, including several stints in hospitals and jails.

The father became frustrated with how the mental health system failed his son, including the fact that he had to be arrested before he could get adequate treatment. Pete Earley was frequently told by mental health practitioners that his son couldn't get help "unless he tried to kill you or someone else."

To get his son the help he needed, the father said he had to lie and tell police his son threatened to kill him.

In the aftermath, Pete Earley took on the fight to help the mentally ill by visiting prisons and mental health treatment facilities throughout the country.

Kevin Earley, now in recovery, has also joined the fight as a peer support specialist for Fairfax County.

The son said he's working to lift the stigma surrounding mental illness, that not all who suffer from a disease are violent.

"Some people will say to me, 'Well you don't look like you have a mental illness.' I have to explain to them that mental illness comes in all shapes and sizes. There is no look to mental illness," he said.

The biggest problem facing the mentally ill today is stigma,, Kevin Earley said.

"A lot of our society, if you watch the news, they have sound bites that get the point across really quickly. And it's very easy to paint the mentally ill as an other or not being someone you love or know, but being this other force that you can villainize or demonize," he said.

Pete Earley in his speech praised the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office for implementing Crisis Intervention Training or CIT without having it forced upon them in the face of tragedy.

"… the base advocates, the ones that are really causing change today in our society are the sheriffs and law enforcement in the mental health world. That's because they have more political clout, unfortunately in some way, than we do in the mental health world," Pete Earley said.

Police officers deal with more mental health patients on average than most psychiatrists do, he said.

Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman, who began CIT for his deputies last year, said the programs have been successful. Two classes of deputies have been trained on how to properly work with mentally ill patients. Chapman, who sits on the governor's School and Public Safety Task Force, is working with the group on improving mental health education in the commonwealth.

The sheriff described discussions within the task force to be serious and robust.

The group, he said, talked about increasing CIT. As a result, the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office is applying for a portion of $34,000 in grant money that's been allocated from the state.

"We have an evolving law enforcement. It gets a little more complicated as we go on day-to-day with the issues that we have to deal with. This unfortunately really isn't one of the issues right out there in front that we have to address," Chapman said.

Local funding

And more is being done on the county legislative level to curb the problem of improper treatment of the mentally ill.

The recent county budget proposes a slight increase in local tax funding for Mental Health, Substance Abuse and Developmental Services, from $20.9 million in fiscal 2013 to $21.4 million in fiscal 2014. Coffers for residential, community-based support, outpatient and outreach and coordination services are also seeing spending increases.

The proposals come on the heels of a spike in the suicide rate in Loudoun County.

In 2012, there were 28 suicides in Loudoun County – two of which were 16-year-old students. This year the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office already has two confirmed suicides. In 2011, there were 28 – a 75 percent increase since 2010 when 16 people took their own lives. In 2009, there were 19 confirmed suicides.

Despite the steps Loudoun County is taking, Pete Earley said even the best CIT and mental health programs will fail without decent community services.

In the last few years, Pete Earley has visited 48 states, touring more than 100 mental health treatment facilities.

"What you're seeing is crisis intervention, it's often introduced after a tragedy … and it's kind of forced on a department. That's why I'm thrilled with you that you didn't have to have it forced on you," Pete Earley told Chapman during the meeting.

CIT, he said, helps transform communities by doing more for mental health patients than simply locking them in jail without treatment.

Pete Earley cited San Antonio, Texas, as a model for how the rest of the nation's law enforcement communities should work to help mentally ill residents.

The city, he said, saved $3 million by implementing CIT, health court and re-entry programs and providing a crisis center rather than using emergency rooms.

"You can't just divert a person from jail, you have to have somewhere to divert them to," Pete Earley said. " … because our [mental health] system is failing us, we're turning to the legal system to save us," he said.
Legislators, he said, need to listen more to the suggestions given to them by those who are recovering mental health patients or are a loved one of a patient.

"We in the mental health community can actually show you how we can save you money – money that you are already paying in ways you don't even know," Pete Earley said.

Problems in the mental health system, he said, need to be addressed with common sense solutions. Too many communities are relying on their loved one to be imprisoned before they can get mental health treatment.

"If I broke my arm I wouldn't call up a police officer and say 'Hey can you come set my arm?' … So why are we expecting the police and the sheriff and the judges to solve what should be a community problem?" Earley said.


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